Monday, February 2, 2015

oh, atlanta

Last week found me away from home... again... Traveling through four states, and stopping in three of the four, in the course of five days is exhausting, to say the least.

Nevertheless... 

Last Thursday night found my companions and I in Atlanta. 

Oh, Atlanta. All I'd ever known was your airport, which I thoroughly despise. 

On the long drive to Atlanta on Thursday afternoon, I browsed restaurants on my smartphone, at the request of my traveling companions - over the last several months of our traveling together, I have apparently proven myself adept at selecting good restaurants. 

As I browsed through the establishments listed on OpenTable, one caught my eye: Babette's Cafe. Surely, I thought to myself, this was a reference to Isak Dinesen's story Babette's Feast. Intrigued, I quickly browsed the menu, liked what I saw, and booked a table. 

Babette's Feast is a wonderful short story (adapted for film in the late 1980s) about two austere Protestant Norwegian sisters - Martine and Philippa - who refuse marriage at their father's behest, breaking the hearts of two men - one, a young lieutenant, and the other, a talented opera singer - in the process. 

One dark night years later, a peculiar Frenchwoman arrives on the sisters' doorstep, with a letter from the rejected opera singer - introducing Babette, and imposing on their Christian generosity to take her into their home. "Babette can cook," the letter closes. 

Several more years later, as the anniversary of their now deceased father's birthday approaches, the sisters wish to remember him with the other members of the church he had founded. They wish only a simple remembrance, but Babette, who has just been notified that she has won ten thousand Francs in the French lottery, implores them to allow her to create a French feast for the guests. They finally give in, and she goes about the planning. 

Babette creates a truly grand meal, foreign to these austere Norwegians, and as the dinner is served and wine flows freely, a sort of redemptive ecstasy falls upon the guests - their hearts are opened to one another in love and laughter, alleviating bitterness and forgiving past wrongs - healing painful wounds. 

The feast completed, and guests departed, the sisters realize that the evening's mastermind has had no share in the fruit of her labors, and rush into the kitchen to find Babette exhausted - completely spent, surrounded by a multitude of dirty dishes. She has sacrificed herself for tremendous good, yet the only thing Martine recognizes is, "It was a very nice dinner." 

Indeed, Babette's Cafe in Atlanta was a reference to the short story - a framed print of the movie poster graced the wall by the door. We had a lovely dinner there, with plenty of good food and wine - but most importantly, the opportunity to enjoy one another's company as friends instead of as simply a group of engineers who were, yet again, traveling together. 

Like the story, that evening reminded me that there is always more to things than what we see or can even understand. In the story, Babette is, of course, an allegory for Christ, and her amazing dinner is allegorical of Christ's sacrifice - which we recall every time we attend the celebration of the Eucharist. (Fr. Robert Barron has an excellent commentary on this in his book Eucharist.) On the plane of our daily lives, though, we all have known a "Babette". It might be the cook making our dinner in a restaurant kitchen, the spouses left at home alone for the week while we are on travel, or something very different. We often fail to recognize their sacrifices, just as we often fail to recognize the sacrifice of Christ. 

Oh Atlanta... I would sooner forget your airport, but I hope I always remember dinner at Babette's Cafe - and more importantly, of what it reminded me.

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